Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How Making Consumers Happy Got Us Here

If you’ve never seen Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 TED Talk: “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce,” please take a moment to check it out:

In the talk, Gladwell focuses on the work of “someone who, I think, has done as much to make Americans happy, as perhaps anyone over the last 20 years, a man who is a great personal hero of mine, someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce.”

Gladwell goes on to describe Moskowitz’s key insight in coming up with chunky pasta sauce for Prego, which is that there is no single sauce that is perfect for everyone, but there is a perfect sauce for each individual consumer. As the saying goes: “The customer is always right.” Thus, the explosion from just Prego vs Ragu to different varies of Prego and Ragu to the cornucopia of choices we have for pasta sauce today.

But as the sauce went, so went everything else. We no longer have to suffer through the primitive days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports or just one cable sports channel. There’s ESPN 2 (and 3 and Classic), FS1, NBCSN, CBSSN, even channels devoted to motorsports or golf. Long gone are the days of everyone tuning in to Walter Cronkite for the day's news. Instead, everyone can find the talking head who agrees most with their personal views and never have to be inconvenienced by a dissenting view.

Online, we no longer have to be exposed to the same reality or set of facts. Facebook, YouTube, Google News, et al. make it so we don’t even have to go out of our way to search out those with similar views; these behemoths feed us stuff based on all the data they have gathered from tracking our online behavior. Of course, they’re doing this to make us happy, but what price are we paying for this sort of happiness?

Which brings us, inevitably, to the present political situation. I think it’s obvious that our current president would not be in office if not for this drive to feed consumers only what they want to see, hear, and experience. Much has been made about how the Russians took advantage of people’s news feeds to try to drive Americans further apart. However, even without foreign interference, I believe that modern America’s brand of consumerism is damaging to all Americans, young and old, left and right. It tells the consumer, “only you and what you want matters.” This kind of implicit message inevitably leads to inflated egos all around, self-selection into smaller and smaller interest groups, and less of a willingness to see things from another perspective. Not surprisingly, frustration, anger, and inability to compromise are the result when people who are used to shaping their own reality are confronted by realities determined by others with different beliefs, such as when a black president gets elected or a controversial speaker gets invited to speak at a college campus.

Is fixing our system (which I believe involves fixing our culture) even possible at this point? Once the Pandora’s Box of unlimited choice for the consumer has been opened, is there any going back to the spirit of “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”? In my less hopeful moments, I think that it would take some sort of unimaginable catastrophe—like the Great Depression bringing an end to the Roaring 20’s—to drive people to put sufficient effort into overcoming the centrifugal forces that are splitting us apart. Yet, as Tom Hanks said, “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.” I'm not sure if he was thinking about a specific historical era, but what came to my mind was what happened during the Renaissance Papacy, when the Popes became so focused on worldly riches, pleasure, and power that they lost their religious legitimacy, leading directly to the Protestant Reformation.

From the Wikipedia entry:
The popes of this period used the papal military not only to enrich themselves and their families, but also to enforce and expand upon the longstanding territorial and property claims of the papacy as an institution. […] With ambitious expenditures on war and construction projects, popes turned to new sources of revenue from the sale of indulgences and of bureaucratic and ecclesiastical offices. […] The popes of this period became absolute monarchs, but unlike their European peers, they were not hereditary, so they could only promote their family interests through nepotism.
That period of the papacy lasted roughly a century before the Reformation forced Catholicism to reform itself. Yes, there were bloody religious wars as a result of the split in Western Christianity, and peace between Catholics and Protestants took centuries to achieve in some places. And some pundits argue that the Reformation created as many horrors as it addressed. But the overall (admittedly simple) lesson I get from this history is that there are many potential Martin Luthers out there, waiting to change the world, even if inadvertently. I just hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for that to happen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

About That Jean Twenge Smartphone Article

Note: As you may notice, this is my first blog post in over 2 years. This blog isn’t dead, it was just resting! I’m thinking about writing a post about why I haven’t blogged in so long; maybe it'll even be done less than 2 years from now.

For the past 3 months, my most frequently-visited blog post has been my critique of Jean Twenge’s claims of a “narcissism epidemic” from 2013. Google tells me that it’s one of the top results in searches for “jean twenge criticism.” So in this post, I would like to share my views on her latest work.

I read her article for The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (an excerpt from her new book iGen), the day that it came out, because as a psychiatrist who works with adolescents, it’s clear to me that smartphones have been changing their lives in ways profound and subtle. I actually like many aspects of the article, including her sympathetic portrayal of the complexity that smartphones have brought into teenagers’ already complex lives. Also, I think she presents the data well, and the data sources that she uses are nationally representative surveys that have been around a long time and are well-respected. I think she makes a rather convincing case that many teens today are living their social lives online rather than hanging out with their friends in person.

However, I do have some criticisms of Twenge’s far-reaching claims about the effects of smartphones, but first, that ridiculous title:

Thankfully, it seems the author agrees:

One criticism that others have voiced is that Twenge seems to draw conclusions based primarily on the correlation between the rise in smartphone use and increases in mental health issues in teens over the same span. While she acknowledges that many of the trends she highlights, such as adolescents taking longer to take on adult responsibilities, predate the introduction of smartphones, she sees the rising use of smartphones as some sort of inflection point. But there are so many other trends going on in our culture, including parents becoming more over-protective, rising political/racial/economic divides, etc., to pin the blame on smartphones seems overly facile. Heck, if I were being cheeky, I would point out that the sale of yoga pants has drastically increased since 2011, corresponding to increases in teen depression:

Source: Business Insider

But just because they correlate does not mean that one has anything to do with the other.

Thus, my biggest criticism stems from Twenge’s seeming certainty about the decisive role of smartphones coupled with a seeming lack of curiosity about examining deeper causes for why these trends are happening. In a recent NY Times Magazine article about increasing rates of anxiety in teens, Twenge had this to say:
“The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” [Twenge] told me. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”
I’m sorry, but I think the situation is closer to her finding evidence of a crime, and possibly even a weapon, but she is nowhere near identifying—much less convicting—a suspect.

I find it vexing that Twenge seems to view each generation as a distinct and determinative entity, rather than some arbitrary line drawn by demographers, as she shows in this tweet:
That is just preposterous. She writes as though each generation somehow pops into existence with its own innate characteristics, rather than being influenced by—and reacting to—the generations that have come before. However, one of the few things I know for sure is the huge extent to which young people are influenced by their elders. For example, this recent article (also in The Atlantic, lol) highlighted just how much even 1-year-old infants learn from observing the actions of the adults around them. And what are kids observing these days?

In my own practice, I often hear from kids and teens who say that their parents are on their laptops checking work email or on their phones checking Facebook all the time. These kids are bored and lonely, so as soon as they have access to a smart device, what do they do? Twenge’s work makes it easy for parents to blame the devices and not think about how their own actions may be influencing their children. While that may protect parents’ egos and sell more books, it’s a very incomplete and misleading picture, to say the least.

I have not yet read Twenge’s new book, but I was hoping that it would take a deeper look at the culture as a whole, especially the critical role that parents can play in changing the situation. However, one look at the book’s table of contents reveals that only the last 26 pages are devoted to a chapter on “Understanding—and Saving—iGen”. This scathing review from NY Mag further breaks down the book and the motivations of the author. The reviewer takes the view that Twenge is less a scholar who investigates all aspects of a complex issue than she is someone positioning herself as a guru for marketers looking to understand the latest generation of teens.

In conclusion, while there certainly is a mental health crisis going on in today’s teens (and adults!) and pinning the blame on smartphones is understandable, I believe it will take far more than getting rid of everyone’s favorite devices to make our culture healthier for future generations.